Home > 2011 Posts > A Question for Apollo

A Question for Apollo

If you like oracular temples, I’ve got one for you: The Temple of Apollo at Didyma. It’s huge: ~400’ by 200’. It was built over a sacred spring. And, it had an 800+ year track record. Thus proving Abraham Lincoln correct about fooling some of the people all of the time.

I was up the road about ten miles at the ruins of Miletus doing book research when I realized I had to see Didyma as well. The Roman ruins at Miletus are all more than a thousand years too new for my book, but getting a feel for the geography was essential. And, as soon as I’d gotten that feel, I realized Didyma was just a half-day’s walk away. It had to be part of what went on in my book’s time as well.

Can’t figure out how I overlooked that in my reading. After all, who could be expected to pick up on the subtle hint that the road from Miletus to Didyma was called The Sacred Way. No biggie; could happen to anyone, right?

So pretty soon, there I was at Didyma, down in the lowest part of the temple basement, near where the now-dry pool was, piecing together tidbits of history and trying to imagine what it must have been like for a supplicant there with a question 2,500 years ago. I took a deep breath, closed my eyes and…

I had sacrificed a white bull at Apollo’s altar. Then, I’d placed a chest of gold and one of silver at the feet of his mighty statue. Now, after my ritual bath, I’m wearing straw sandals and a white tunic. Four dwarves with small torches lead me down flights of narrow stone steps. At the bottom, we head into a low, damp tunnel, past several confusing turns and finally into one end of a sanctum thick with pungent incense.

I try to stay calm; the fate of my city will lie in the oracle’s words. A gilt iron grating spans the width of the chamber. It has been artfully worked by a true master into an elaborate scene of Apollo in his chariot slaying a lion. Behind the golden barrier, I see the seeress in flowing red robes decorated with a strange jumble of jagged black slashes. She raises her gaze from the still pool’s depths. I pay little attention as the dwarves step back around the tunnel’s last turn, leaving just the small lamps in each corner to cast a dim glow. Somehow, there are bright points of light in the woman’s eyes as they lock onto mine.

The only sound here is a slow, jarring flurry of tiny noises. They come from small instruments played by two unnaturally tall and thin priests in the far corners beyond the grate. One man wears finger-cymbals and the other knocks a stick on a small, hollow wooden shape. Both create wierd notes of discord interspersed with long, random periods of anticipation that seem to grind against my ears. Their efforts put me further on edge, matching the disjoint, almost-patterns painted in jerky strokes of red and black all across the walls and ceiling.

The young seeress sits on a thick horizontal pole over the god’s ebon pool. She is still. Only her right foot moves slowly forward and back a hand’s breadth above the water. She looks straight at and through me, sharp eyes boring into my soul. Her stillness is inhuman, she doesn’t even seem to be breathing.

My own breaths are now sharp and shallow. After being transfixed by her intensity for an unknowable period, I gather my remaining wits. With my last shreds of courage and in a faltering voice, I ask the question.

Unmoved and unmoving, she stares. Then, her toe dips down into the holy pool.

Instantly, she shudders and gasps as if in ecstasy or smitten by a mortal wound. Her eyes fly wide, staring mindlessly upward. Then they roll far back and close as her head falls forward. She seems dead but does not fall. Behind her, the priest’s noises come faster, skittering though unseen cracks in the universe.

After a long time, the oracle’s head snaps up. She again locks onto my eyes with that obsidian stare. And again, she is perfectly still but for the slow glide of her foot. Then, her lips part and her face twists into something hideous. In a sudden, grating voice not of this world she delivers the god’s words, no longer herself but now one with the serrations of the wall paintings and the maddening not-music.

I fall to floor in shock. At some point, the dwarves find me on my hands and knees, still too stricken to rise, and help me climb back toward the surface. After a time sitting on a stone bench, head clutched in my hands, I stumble outside to my horse. Now I’m on the road east, returning home in despair with the oracle’s fateful message.

Apollo has pronounced my city’s doom.

Archaeology can be a lot more than just piles of rocks and broken pots! People came to Didyma for many centuries to find answers. These were people who believed they’d be shown the gods’ truth. If their experience wasn’t as I describe, then it probably wasn’t much different either. Think about it.

Standing there in that millennia old sanctum, I sure did.

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  1. July 6, 2011 at 9:04 am

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